Friday, October 12, 2018

Monsterpiece Theater: Universal Monster Mash- The Dracula/Frankenstein Sequels

by Rustbelt

OK, time to move to a new world of movies: the world of ‘talkies.’ (Take it away, Bobby!) A truly scientific innovation that expanded the medium. (And no, I don’t care if Thomas Edison said sound ruined movies by allowing actors to get lazy and depend only on their voices. He was an inventor, not artist. So, what did he know?)

Specifically, we’re going to enter the Sound Era of Universal’s Monsters with sequels- a heavy dose of them. Most follow the classic formula of the “[Something] of [insert Monster’s Name here]” format. (The Something Of’s cousins, the Possessive Sequels, are, of course, sprinkled in here and there.) This style is an easy way to bring a beloved ghoul back after a previous director/writer/producer foolishly killed them off. I mean, these sequels can be anything- Bride, Son, Cousin, Beautician, CPA, Witch Doctor, Spin Doctor, Console-Modder, Tax Collector... wait, hold on. Hm... Tax Collector of Dracula? Hold on.
Note: I’ve already written a rather extensive article on the original Universal Dracula as part of my Dracula series from two years ago. If you missed it, you can check it out here: LINK

Dracula’s Daughter (Universal, 1936) Trailer

Plot: Things pick up immediately after the end of the events of Dracula as a pair of policemen arrive at Carfax Abbey, finding Renfield’s body, Count Dracula’s staked corpse, and Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), who confesses to killing the Count and is arrested. The bodies are taken to a morgue, where the Count’s corpse is stolen by a woman who hypnotizes the guard. Once outside in a Fog-Shrouded Forest, the woman, Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), who calls herself Dracula’s daughter, and her servant/familiar, Sandor (Irving Pichel), cremate it, hoping the ceremony will make her human again.

Van Helsing, meanwhile, is being held at Scotland Yard. He pleas with noted psychiatrist and former student Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) to believe and defend him. (Van Helsing’s defense is that it can’t be a case of murder when the stiff has already been dead for over 500 years.) Garth himself is soon approached by Countess Zaleska, who, having failed to become human after the destruction of Dracula’s body, thinks his expertise in hypnosis might cure her bloodlust. In the meantime, she tries to pursue painting. In this case, she tries painting a portrait of a prostitute brought in by Sandor, but instead gives in to her cravings and bites he girl instead.

When Garth questions the girl under hypnosis, she reveals the truth about Zaleska before dying of a heart attack. Zaleska kidnaps Garth’s secretary/wannabe-girlfriend and heads for Transylvania, pursued by Garth, Van Helsing, and the sheriff. Garth makes it to Castle Dracula, where Zaleska reveals it was a trap to bring him there so she could make him a vampire and they could live together for eternity. However, a jealous Sandor- who Zaleska, it seems, made the same promise to him- shoots Zaleksa with a bow and arrow. Zaleska dies as Van Helsing relates a sliver of her history just in time before the Abrupt Ending.
Thoughts and Background: This isn’t a bad follow-up, as far as sequels go. Multiple Internet sources claim it was based on ‘Dracula’s Guest,’ the excised first chapter of the novel Dracula. (The chapter in question has Jonathan Harker encountering supernatural goings-on around Munich. It seems it ruined the pace and suspense later on. Stoker’s widow, Florence, later published it as a short story.) But I don’t see it. Mainly, this is the original movie in reverse. It starts in England and goes back to Transylvania. Here, the vampire wants to end her vampirism instead of spreading it. But like the original, the vampire is trying mostly to find true, undead love.

Like its predecessor, this film was supposed to be a massive undertaking, with most of the original cast- along with other veteran Universal actors- coming back. However, my guess is costs got out of hand and things were scaled back. Nevertheless, this was the last horror film Universal would release for three years. It seems the Laemmles had overspent on numerous, inferior productions that failed to make their money back, forcing them to take out a massive loan. When the Laemmles failed to repay, the creditors took over, kicked the Laemmles out, and ordered a halt on horror films because they simply didn’t like them. (This all happened only fours days after Dracula’s Daughter wrapped.) Still, it’s a decent film, worth looking at, but I don’t it’s worth many repeat viewings.
Gloria Holden as Countess Marya Zaleska: All right, it’s time to talk about what everyone talks about when this movie is brought up: lesbianism! As noted above, Countess Zaleska attacks a prostitute after bringing her to a studio on the premise of painting a picture of her. Well, during the scene, Zaleska instructs the lady of the evening to gently strip down to her bare shoulders and back. The way the scene goes, Zaleska becomes visibly more attracted the more the girl strips until she can’t help herself. (The addition of a reflection from her ‘hypnotic’ ring hitting the girl’s eyes- reminiscent of the same technique used for Lugosi’s close-ups in the original film- is a nice touch.) This is followed by a scene at the end of the film, where she almost attacks Garth’s secretary in a similar setup (and would’ve lost the bargaining chip essential to her scheme). Now, I’ve read that a lot of the crew who made these movies were gay, but as a straight guy, I can’t tell if it’s meant to be gay or not. Seeing humans as meals, Zaleska could just be giving into her bloodlust. (She kills a man for his blood early in the film.) Perhaps they were just teasing the audience as much as they could under the Production Code. Still, that didn’t keep Universal from using taglines like, “Are the Women of London Safe?”
Gender implications aside, Zaleska herself is completely different from Dracula. She bemoans how ugly it can be to be a vampire. She longs for daylight, food, human music, and beauty, but is always pulled back into the darkness. It makes her more sympathetic, even after she gives up all hope for a cure and tries to live with Garth forever as vampires. As for her connection to the Count, she claims to be his daughter but, at the end, Van Helsing says she died 100 years ago. Dracula, he says, died 500 years ago. Maybe she was a favored bride who he made his heir? Tough to say.

Son of Dracula (Universal, 1943) Trailer

Plot: In the bayou of Louisiana, a strange, European-y character named Count Alucard (try not to laugh), arrives with a few crates and a coffin with his name on it. He travels to a plantation called ‘Dark Oaks,’ where the owner lives with his two daughters. That night, the owner dies mysteriously. One of his daughters. Katherine, (Louise Albritton) inherits the estate while her sister Claire (Evelyn Ankers) gets the money. Within a few days, Katherine- a stoic, wooden-ish, world-weary occult enthusiast- courts the Count and marries. This doesn’t sit well with her longtime boyfriend, Frank (Robert Paige). To make his point, Frank does what any level-headed guy in his position would do: he shoots the Count with a revolver, only for the bullets to strike Katherine standing behind the Count. Distraught at his overwhelming failure, Frank surrenders to authorities for Katherine’s murder.

Meanwhile, Dr. Bewster (Frank Craven), who had been suspicious of the Count, searches Dark Oaks and confronts the Count (Lon Chaney, Jr.). He’s taken to see Katherine in her room, where she is alive and well... er, uh, she’s animated and well... she’s moving and taking in a slow, Kathleen Turner-ish voice and looking like death and, oh, she’s a vampire, already! They couple even tell the doc they won’t be around in the daylight. Hint, hint! The doc accepts everything and leaves without question. Oh, come on! The audience knows what’s going on! Ray Charles and Mr. Magoo can see what’s going on! Why must we do this “are vampires real” song and dance in every movie the respective audience knows is featuring vampires?!
Back to Frank, who’s in jail. Katherine suddenly appears before him after traveling as both mist and a bat. She reveals that Alucard isn’t just a Hungarian nobleman- he’s Dracula himself. (No, way! You’ve GOT to be kidding!) You speak with a forked tongue, lady. She adds that she only married Dracula so that he would make her a vampire and she could live forever. Gold digger! Shameless social climber! And now she wants Frank to kill Dracula so the two of them can live together forever as vampires. On top of all that, a manipulative femme fatale, too?! Devil, thy name is woman.

Frank breaks out of prison with Katherine’s help and heads to a swamp. There, in a Fog-Shrouded Forest, he finds Dracula’s coffins and proceeds to burn it, living him no refuge. The Count tries to stop him, but the sun rises and Drac is reduced to bones. Frank then goes to the mansion where Bella Swa- Katherine sleeps in her coffin. Brewster, the sheriff, and a Hungarian scholar whom Brewster contacted earlier break in just in time to see Katherine’s body being burned by Frank.
Close, but no cigar, witchy woman. So close.

Thoughts and Background: This film was made in the latter phase of Universal horror during the 1940’s. It’s generally regarded as inferior to the 1930’s. As noted above, the plot isn’t very original. Even less is you assume that the screenwriter used Doc Brown’s DeLorean to travel to the 21st century and read a certain book before coming back and writing the script. Yeah. Think about it. Bland female protagonist uses vampire to become immortal and live with her boyfriend for all eternity while spurning and being unlikable to everyone else. Katherine is a You-Know-Who for a previous generation and if you disagree, well, you’re wrong.
Still, this movie has its moments. For all the flack I’ve given it, the actors playing Katherine and Frank play their roles well enough to keep things interesting and prevent it from being boring. (I do like how Katherine’s makeup and costume change to pale white and dark/worn respectively after she becomes a vampire. She even moves and speaks more slowly to complete the effect, which is a good decision by the actress and crew.) The New Orleans setting is nice, except that many of the sets were clearly used in other Universal horror films. Also, this the first Universal film to animate the bat-to-‘human’ transformations for the vampires. (As well as the only one to show them changing into mist.) Now, if only there wasn’t that one scene where you could see Alucard in the mirror... oops! And speak of the Devil...
Lon Chaney, Jr. as Count Alucard/Dracula: Remember two years ago when I thought Jack Palance was miscast as Dracula? We have a new champion. The younger Chaney is completely out of his element here. Lacking his father’s range, this Chaney specialized in playing sad sack, brooding, often tragic characters. To play Dracula requires a level of confidence, which Chaney doesn’t show. At best he’s stiff, delivers his lines in what I can only describe as mumbled staccato, and occasionally shakes things up by doing an almost comical ‘tense growl’ with his face. To say Lugosi’s elegant danger and charming menace are sorely missed would be a phenomenal understatement.

Also, not to complain too much, but we last saw Dracula being cremated in England. This film says Katherine met him in Budapest. Uh... how? And another thing, this flick references Dracula as having been killed in the 19th century. Dracula’s Daughter takes places- allegedly- at the same time, but with radios, electric lighting, and Rolls Royces, it is clearly set in the 1930’s. For a cinematic universe that prided itself (occasionally) on continuity, this is really leaving me confused.
Note: As with Dracula, I’ve already covered the original Frankenstein and its first sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, in a previous article. You can read it here: LINK

Son of Frankenstein (Universal, 1939) Trailer

Plot: It’s a not-so-happy time in the town of…Frankenstein? Oh, okay. We’ll go with it. Anyway, the new baron, Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) has brought his American wife and young son to receive the family inheritance and live at the Frankenstein family castle. Following a cold reception from the village folk, Wolf examines the castle and its laboratory, determined to redeem the family’s reputation. He finds more than he bargained for when he runs into a creepy, deformed blacksmith named Ygor (Bela Lugosi) who has been hiding out in the castle. Ygor brings Wolf to the crypt of his disgraced father and grandfather. And only a few feet away, lying in a coma since being struck by a bolt of lightning, is the Monster (Boris Karloff) himself.

Wolf then conducts a series of experiments that ultimately revive the Monster. Wolf wants to share his triumph with the world, proving that his father was right. But Ygor has other plans. It seems the decrepit man was hanged by the villagers after being found guilty of graverobbing. Somehow, despite the noose breaking his neck, the strange man survived. And before Wolf arrived, Ygor managed to hypnotize the Monster, getting it to respond to his commands and kill the townspeople who served on the jury and sentenced him to hang. Now that Wolf has revived the Monster, Ygor sets out to complete his revenge.
The killings rile up the villagers, and a Pitchfork-and-Torches Mob storms the castle. Inside, Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill), who had been trying to defend the Frankenstein family from the overly-excited villagers, now suspects something sinister and symbolically places Wolf under arrest. Pushed to his limits by all around him, Wolf seeks out Ygor in the lab and shoots him dead. The devastated Monster, furious at losing his only friend, kidnaps Wolf’s young son and is pursued by the Baron and Krogh. In a final showdown, Wolf channels the spirit of Tarzan by swinging on a rope and knocking the Monster over a ledge and into a sulfur pit. The film Abruptly Ends with Wolf handing the castle over to the mayor and jumping on the first train out of town.
Thoughts and Background: This is a very worthy follow-up the original film and Bride. A good way for Universal to re-start their horror franchise after lifting their (aforementioned) three-year ban! (Why? Well, a re-release double-bill of Dracula and Frankenstein made a huge profit. And since film execs like green, the ban was lifted.) It has all the massive sets and gloomy feel that one would want in a Frankenstein film. The castle feels empty and foreboding throughout. There’s never-ending tension between the Frankenstein family and the Angry Villagers who were terrorized by the Monster’s prior appearances. The plot is also unique, with the Monster not being the focus of the entire film, but rather the Baron, Ygor, and Inspector Krogh. (More on the first two in a second.) Lionel Atwill does a nice turn as Krogh, a policeman who lost his right to the Monster when he was a boy. He endures both the villagers’ demands for revenge and Wolf’s arrogance with grace, only losing his calm when Hell freezes over at the end. This character was later immortalized when Kenneth Mars spoofed/homaged him as Inspector Kemp in Young Frankenstein (1974). (I mean, they got all the details correct. While playing darts, Mars even sticks the darts in his wooden arm just like Atwill does in this film!)
My only gripes are well, first of all, why is the town named Frankenstein? It’s Goldstadt in the first two films. And second, where did this castle come from? The original films show the Frankenstein family with a mansion while Henry conducts his experiments in an abandoned watch tower which is destroyed at the end of Bride. Was the tower an ancestral castle? I don’t know.

Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster: It’s Boris’ third and final outing in his iconic role. And despite the addition of a bear outfit, he picks up right where left off. The only problem is that he isn’t given much to do, other than mourn Ygor at the end. Did you know this film was originally meant to be in color? Well, screen tests were done (he’s strangling makeup artist Jack Pierce in this clip), but the production remained black and white. Popular theory is that execs thought the makeup looked bad in color; although, it’s equally possible that color filming might have been deemed too expensive.
And one more thing on Boris. I’m always amazed at how he brings his “A” game to every role. Contrast that with Rathbone in this picture. Rathbone reportedly disliked horror films and passive-aggressively showed his dislike by completely overacting his part (which he does). And this wasn’t an isolated incident: they were both like this throughout their careers! I’ll give you one more example. Both had parts in the AIP ‘beach party’ flick, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. Okay, it IS what you’re thinking, and it’s NOT (OR MAYBE IS) what you’re thinking. (You readers and your filthy minds.) Anyway, Karloff plays a newly-deceased ghost who must do a good deed- making sure his heirs inherit his estate- to get into Heaven (stay with me). Rathbone plays his lawyer, who tries to take the estate for himself. Seeing this film as beneath him, Rathbone goes through the motions to get his paycheck. But despite only a few minutes of screen time, Karloff gives it his all and still makes his part memorable. I guess that’s why Rathbone’s such a grump and Karloff belongs in a class with actors like Vincent Price, Raul Julia, and Gary Oldman, who, out of respect for their craft and audiences, could never give a bad performance.
Bela Lugosi as Ygor: Lugosi makes a triumphal return to the Universal mainstream as a shadowy, seedy, unreliable, vengeful, manipulative scoundrel who survived a hanging and wants his enemies to pay by using the Monster as his tool of vengeance. This film had little to no script, leaving Lugosi to improvise most of his lines. This was reportedly a directorial decision to give Lugosi more screen time, increase his, and make him more central to the movie. And the legend makes the most of it. Ygor can be charming, possessive, and even threatening when necessary. To put it simply, Lugosi shows he’s more than just Count Dracula. (Exactly how “Ygor”, “Igor”, “Eye-gor?”- they do get it wrong, now don’t they- become the standard name for slavish, hunch-backed lab assistants confounds me. Ygor isn’t a hunchback and is his own man. I suppose “Fritz” wasn’t European-y enough.)

Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) Trailer

Plot: Well, it appears running Wolf out of town and being bribed with his birthright estate wasn’t enough for the Angry Villagers of the village of... Frankenstein. Apparently, they think that family name of Frankenstein is still bad for the village of... Frankenstein. Could they just change the name? No. So, with mayoral blessing, they form a Pitchforks-and-Torches Mob and just rip the thing apart. Ygor (Bela Lugosi) escapes, but not before rescuing the Monster (Lon Chaney, Jr.), who’s been freed from the sulfur pit by the crumbling walls.
The two make for the village of Vaseria where, after carrying a little girl on a roof(!) to get her ball, the Monster is captured. Ygor rushes to a nearby castle-mansion-sanitorium(?) to find Ludwig Frankenstein (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), the doc’s other son. (I put a question mark there because Ludwig is set up as a psychiatrist, but is immediately shown performing surgery. Seems everyone with a ‘Doctor’ title is automatically a surgeon around here.) Ygor blackmails the good doc, threatening to reveal his family history to the potential Angry Villagers of Vaseria unless he helps his dad’s creation. Ludwig convinces the city elders to move the Monster to his hospital(?), despite the objections of the film’s second Pitchfork-and-Torches Mob. Ludwig considers destroying the Monster by dissection, but a spectral visit from his father’s spirit (the ghost of the title), convinces him to ‘fix’ by giving the Monster a better (read: non-abnormal) brain.

Ludwig decides to place the brain of Dr. Kettering (a minor character and colleague of Ludwig killed earlier in the film by the Monster), in the Monster’s body. Angered at possibly losing his control over the Monster, Ygor convinces Dr. Bohmer, Ludwig’s former-mentor-turned-junior-assistant, (Lionel Atwill- hey, from beat cop to brain surgeon in just one sequel. Not bad), to place Ygor’s brain in the Monster, claiming it will help him regain his lost fame. Bohmer does so, sabotaging the operation. Ludwig realizes what’s happened afterward when the Monster speaks with Ygor’s voice!!
To make matters worse, the villagers have arrived through the Fog-Shrouded Forest in full Pitchfork-and-Torches Mob mode to burn down the building. Hey, our third in one movie. Hat trick! Ludwig’s son-in-law-to-be, Erik (Ralph Bellamy), tries to hold them off by demanding due process and allowing him to talk with Ludwig first. The villagers- having the minds of your average swine- give him two minutes before deciding Erik’s cause is hopeless and storming the building anyway. Bohmer and Ygor/Monster release toxic gas(?) into the building to hold off the villagers. (You know, as an avowed of opponent of mob/SJW tactics and firm believer in the Fourth Amendment and private property, I really can’t disagree with this course of action.) Just then, the Monster goes blind! Why? Because Ygor’s blood type didn’t match the Monster’s! In a rage, the Monster kills Bohmer and fatally wounds Ludwig. Erik and Ludwig’s daughter, Elsa (Evelyn Ankers), escape as the Monster falls through the castle-mansion’s burning wreckage.
Thoughts and Background: You might have noticed my change of tone for the second sequel for both Frankenstein and Dracula. As noted above, my research shows that a lot of this has to do with the drop in quality of Universal’s monster films after 1939. Most fans believe Son of Frankenstein was the studio’s last true attempt at horror (save for the Wolf Man). After that, everything was just another sequel churned out to make money. Boy, am I relieved that trend faded away! In all honesty, there’s not more to add to my snarky remarks above. Let’s go to the Monsters.
Lon Chaney, Jr. as Frankenstein’s Monster: When you’re a rising star, you get all the lead parts, I suppose. And like his aforementioned take on the Count, the younger Chaney adds very little to this role. He spends the entire movie with one facial expression- sleepwalking- and moves like a robot. All the careful characterization Boris Karloff created to make the character so memorable is as dead and buried as the body the Monster was originally made from. I’d almost call Chaney a zombie here, but even Romero’s zombies had more character than this.
Bela Lugosi as Ygor: Ah, redemption. Lugosi slides right back into character here without missing a beat. All of Ygor’s trademark cunning, deception, and manipulation are still here. He’s easily the most interesting character in the film and saves it from being a dud. His desire to control and then become his ‘friend’ drive the entire story. (OK, he wasn’t responsible for the Angry Villagers, but that’s not the point.) His punishment at the end feels just and fitting. Rightfully standing alongside Count Dracula, this is easily one of Lugosi’s brightest moments on the screen.

Next week, it’s all about the bandages...
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Thursday, October 4, 2018

Monsterpiece Theater: Universal Monster Mash- The Silent Era

by Rustbelt

I was working at my computer, late one night...
Searching for a theme that seemed just about right.
Hammer, slasher, modern, nothing was a rise...
Then, suddenly, I remembered and quickly realized...

To do the mash
Let’s do the monster mash
The monster mash
It’ll be a graveyard smash
Let’s do the mash
The Universal Monster Mash!
All right everyone, it’s the Haunting Season again! And that means another season of Monsterpiece Theater! Now, I know last year’s theme (Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee movies), was a little bit niche. In this business, you gotta take risks. Some work out, some don’t. So, this year I decided to go with a better-known theme: The Monsters of Universal Studios! Dracula, Frankenstein (and his Monster), Mummies, Wolf Men, the Phantom... let's begin!

A Brief History of Universal Studios

Universal’s origin starts not in California, but in Chicago. It was in the Windy City where, in 1906, German immigrant Carl Laemmle quit his job as a bookkeeper for a clothing company and opened one of the city’s first movie theaters, (better known as ‘nickelodeons,’ because tickets only cost five cents). He soon ran afoul of the Motion Picture Patents Company, Thomas Edison’s trust that controlled the distribution of films and manufacture of film equipment. It seems Carl was showing films made by independent filmmakers and advertising the films’ main actors, gaining their support and single-handedly inventing the ‘movie star.’ A few years later, he moved to the New York area, intending to make his own movies.

Once in New York, Laemmle and other renegade theater owners formed the Independent Moving Pictures Company. Eventually, this team and other eager filmmakers got together and formally founded Universal Studios on April 30, 1912 in New York City. Laemmle was named president. Eager to keep his monopoly, Edison fought back. Having invented or bought the patents to all equipment needed to make or project movies, he filed endless lawsuits to shut down his competitors. This resulted in Universal following other film companies and moving to the Los Angeles area. Not only did the communication methods of the time- letters, telegraph, train, etc.- make it hard for Edison to coordinate his lawsuits, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, (which covers L.A.), was known for not adhering to patent laws as rigidly as the courts in the East. Regardless, Edison’s scheming came to an end in 1915 when the Supreme Court found MPPC to be in violation of both the Sherman and Clayton Anti-Trust Acts. Film studios were now free to make movies at will.

But something was missing at Universal. Though Laemmle had his filmmaking freedom, his studio was in chaos. Enter the boy genius. Irving Thalberg was just barely over twenty when he became Laemmle’s personal secretary at Universal’s New York office. Laemmle then took Thalberg to the Hollywood campus and, after listening to Thalberg’s appraisal of the place, made him studio manager on the spot. Thalberg quickly remade the filmmaking process. He instituted the pre-screening of scripts, itemized budgets before filming, shooting schedules, and test audiences, among other things. (Though sometimes criticized for stifling creativity today, these processes truly helped improve the quality and profitability of films.) He even took Laemmle’s promotion of ‘stars’ to new levels, having them look classy, glamorous, and heavily promoted in public. His incredible understanding of both the business and artistic sides of film helped Universal reach new heights in the early silent era.
Another of Thalberg’s innovations was to make grand films based on classic literature. And that’s where this weeks’ films begin!

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Universal, 1923)

Plot: (Briefly summarize a freakin’ Victor Hugo story? Well, I’ll try.) In 1482, a love triangle develops during the Festival of Fools, as both the virtuous Captain of the Guards Phoebus (Norman Kerry) and the vile Jehan (brother of Dom Claude, the kind arch-deacon of Notre Dame Cathedral) pine for the gypsy girl Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller). Jehan tries to kidnap her with the help of the hunchbacked Quasimodo (Lon Chaney), but fails when Phoebus himself catches them in the act. Jehan (Brandon Hurst) escapes, but Quasimodo is captured. Quasimodo, (who is deaf and half-blind), is tried and ordered to be tortured for his behavior before the court. At the scene of his lashing, Esmeralda brings him water to ease the pain before Dom Claude arrives and brings him down. Meanwhile, Phoebus woos Esmeralda, bringing her to a noble gala that is broken up when her stepfather Clopin- the leader of the Paris underworld- crashes the party. The lovers meet again at Notre Dame where Jehan sneaks in and stabs Phoebus. Esmeralda is caught at the scene and tried for Phoebus’ apparent murder. (He actually survives.)

Not long after, on the day of Esmerald’s scheduled execution in front of the cathedral, she is rescued by Quasimodo and given sanctuary within Notre Dame. Clopin then leads his army- a Torches-and-Pitchfork mob of thieves- into Paris, to bring down the aristocracy and retrieve his step-daughter from the cathedral. Quasimodo holds them off by tossing construction material on the mob before Phoebus and his soldiers arrive. Inside, Jehan tries to catch Esmeralda, but is stopped by Quasimodo, who is stabbed. After Esmeralda and Phoebus walk off safely, Quasimodo rings the bells once last time as he dies in front of Dom Claude.

Thoughts and Background: When I made a list of the films for this article, this was the film I was least familiar with. Needless to say, I went in expecting just another silent film and ran headlong into a true classic. Honestly, this film left me at a loss for words. Everything about this movie is on a truly epic scale. (I honestly didn’t think films were made like this for at least another decade.) The sets are massive, built to the actual scale of 15th-century Paris. The film also used literally hundreds of extras for the massive crowd scenes. And that doesn’t even begin to cover the costuming and other period props.

There also seems to be controversy over how this film came about. The long-held story is that Thalberg convinced Laemmle to make the film by promising to script it as a love story. The other is that Lon Chaney himself bought up the rights and gave himself almost total control as an uncredited producer over the film. Regardless, this film is truly amazing. The characters are all well-acted, actually overcoming the production values. (Not an easy feat for this film.)

Lon Chaney as Quasimodo: Chaney, one of Hollywood’s original megastars, was also an incredible makeup artist in addition to being a gifted actor. For Quasimodo, he used a knotted wig, facial putty, a contact lens, false teeth, a leg brace, and a plaster hump that weight somewhere between 10 and 15 pounds.
But this was just the costume. Chaney’s true gift wasn’t in ‘looking’ like the character, but in allowing his acting to shine through the costume. With only a few facial movements, he’s able to portray curiosity, betrayal, pain, anguish, shock, hope, and caring. The film’s most famous scene, where Quasimodo is lashed on the scaffold, is a hard scene to watch. Chaney’s reactions as his character is shackled and then stripped- thus baring his deformities and humiliating him before the heart of Paris- are gut-wrenching until Esmeralda arrives to offer him kindness and his reaction is of shock and gratitude. His later devotion also makes his death scene difficult. As he’s dying, he’s forced to watch the only woman he cared for walk off with another man and he almost dies alone. Yet, the expression on his face as the arch deacon arrives is one of peace. We feel for him. We feel we knew him. At least I did. It took a while to type this because Chaney’s performance haunted me for several days. I just couldn’t get it our of my head. Maybe it’s because it was so well-written. Well, yes. But perhaps, maybe, that of all the characters Chaney played throughout his career, Quasimodo was the most human. (FULL MOVIE)

The Phantom of the Opera (Universal, 1925)

Plot: As a new production of Faust is set to open at the Paris Opera House, the new managers are informed of a strange figure (Lon Chaney) who has been making demands of the production and resides in Box #5 during productions. Rumors of the stranger- known as ‘the Phantom’- run rampant through the opera cast and staff. Apparently, the stranger is demanding that a young performer named Christine DaaĆ© (Mary Philbin) take the main role. Unknown to the managers and Raoul- Christine’s boyfriend- the stranger has been mentoring Christine by speaking through the wall of her dressing room. The managers refuse the Phantom’s demands. He responds by dropping a chandelier on the audience during the next performance and kidnapping Christine. He takes her to his underground lair, revealing that he feels love for her and that she makes him feel complete. He asks her to stay, but warns her not touch his mask. Christine eventually disobeys, pulling off his mask and revealing his skull-like face. To quell his wrath, she promises to dump Raoul and become his forever.

The next night, Christine and Raoul (Norman Kerry, he’s back!) make plans to escape for England, but the Phantom- who the managers learn is an escaped criminal from ‘Devil’s Island’ with genius level intelligence- overhears them. During the next performance, the Phantom kidnaps Christine, with Raoul and Ledoux (Arthur Edmund Carewe)- a French secret policeman- in pursuit. The Phantom traps them in his dungeon and tries to force Christine to play a game of Russian Roulette involving two levers- one that will save Raoul and the other that will blow up the Opera House. Christine convinces the Phantom to spare them, and he relents. At that point, a Torches-and-Pitchforks Mob breaks into the Phantom’s lair and chases him through Paris, where he is cornered at the Seine, thrown in, and drowned.

Thought and Background: This film had a troubled production. The idea started when Csrl Laemmle met author Gaston Leroux, who convinced him to consider his novel for a major film. Laemmle agreed. Once production got underway, Lon Chaney promptly went on an ego trip and clashed endlessly with director Rupert Julian. Poor reviews caused a reshoot. Edward Sedgwick was brought on and remade the film as a sort-of slapstick romantic comedy. This had a terrible test screening. (The audience booed loudly.) Finally, Maurice Pivar and Lois Weber were brought in to make a third cut, which used mostly footage from Julian version. (And you thought Star Wars was saved in editing!) Finally, a decent cut was completed and released.

This film has all the grandeur and epic-ness of Hunchback, but something feels like it’s missing. A lot of the information is conveyed not through title cards, but through letters the characters send to each other. (The surviving prints of this film aren’t very good. This can make the letters hard to read.) The film also suffers from uneven pacing. It feels like it’s taken a Red Bull at the start but slows down considerably after Christine takes off the mask and doesn’t pick up again until the torture scene. I also think I noticed a slight feel of German Expressionism with the use of shadows. This is particularly noticeable when the Phantom- before he’s unmasked- is shown talking to Christine with only his shadow on the wall. (Now, if only the shot didn’t bear a slight resemblance to a certain someone...) It’s still a decent movie, but the production problems really hinder the production.

Lon Chaney as the Phantom: Or...“IS THIS WHAT YOU WANTED TO SEE??!” Without a doubt, this is definitely Chaney’s most famous appearance. Unlike later productions of Phantom, which portray Erik (the Phantom’s name) as scarred, here the character keeps his printed page appearance and his face looks like a skull. To achieve this, Chaney pulled his nose back with fish skin, (or a hook apparatus, which apparently caused him severe nosebleeds that delayed production), painted his nostrils and eye sockets black, built up his cheeks with cotton and collodion, glued his ears back, and put on a bald wig. (He added egg membrane on his eyes so they would look ‘cloudy.’) He ‘tested’ the look on cameraman on Charles Van Enger by summoning him to his dressing room and turning around without warning. When Van Enger nearly wet himself (by his admission), tripped over a stool, and fell on his back, Chaney knew the look would work. (Van Enger also said that Mary Philbin was unaware of his appearance and her on-camera shock at seeing him in character- for the actual first time- was genuine.
It’s also worth noting that no pictures, posters, or stills of Chaney were released prior to the film’s premiere. This was to terrify the audiences as much as possible. (Kind of like how Psycho had lobby signs asking moviegoers not to reveal the ending as they left.)
Chaney’s performance is, again, quite good. He’s playing a character similar to Quasimodo- a deformed, misunderstood man. The Phantom, however, disdains the presence of others and lives in a subterranean world. Though refined, he is finished with people in general. And I must confess, it is really hard to like the Phantom in the same way that I felt for Quasimodo. I didn’t mention it in the plot summary, but the Phantom kills several people who get too close to his lair. This combined with the chandelier scene and his treatment of Christine, Raoul, and Ledoux, makes it harder to sympathize with him. I was left with a feeling that he deserved to meet his end in the River Seine. (FULL MOVIE)

And because we just discussed the Phantom and you want to hear it.

The Man Who Laughs (Universal, 1928)

Plot: (Victor Hugo, again?!?! Gimme a break!) In 1680’s England, King James II gets an unexpected gift: his enemy, Lord Clancharlie has been captured. The King has his enemy killed in the Iron Maiden (called “the Iron Lady” in the film), only after telling the unfortunate ex-Lord that his son was sent to a gypsy surgeon who carved a permanent grin on his face so he could forever laugh at his fool of a father. The boy, Gwynplaine, is abandoned by the gypsies when the king exiles them and is taken in- along with a baby he found in the snow- by the trickster Ursus (Cesare Gravina). The film jumps ahead years later, where Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) is all grown up and he, Ursus, and the blind Dea (the baby he rescued earlier), have created a successful traveling carnival show- The Laughing man- based on his face. Here, things get complicated. Bear with me.

Through a series of events, Barkilphedro- James II’s former jester who schemed his way into power under Queen Anne- discovers Gwynplaine’s heritage and plots to use it to humiliate Duchess Josiana, who originally received Clancharlie’s wealth and position. Gwynplaine continues to perform while trying to reconcile his face and his love for Dea.

Later, (after Gwynplaine meets Josiana due to the latter’s curiosity in him), sentries from the Queen take Gwynplaine to make him into a Peer, as per his birthright. Gwynplaine’s companions, wrongly believing he was executed, fall into despair and are ordered to leave England. Once in the House of Lords, Gwynplaine rebukes them when they laugh at him. He escapes and is followed by a Torches-and-Pitchforks mob to the docks where he meets the others and they sail away for the safety of Parts Unknown (France?).

Thoughts and Background: As you can probably tell from the summary, I wasn’t as enthralled by this film as I was by the prior two. Granted, the production values are still quite high. The period costumes are quite good. And…wait. I need to mention something. Everyone is in period dress except Duchess Josiana. Her outfits are a Renaissance/1920’s hybrid. Not only that, there’s a scene where Barkilphedro (God, I beg Thee, please don’t make me write this name too much), entices a messenger to peer through a keyhole at her and we get a full bareback shot of her in a tub! Yowza! I guess we can conclude the Production Code is still a few years off! Another thing I noticed is how all the sets look like sound stages. Elaborate, but lacking the epic-ness of Hunchback or Phantom. It’s prescient of the look that will come to define Universal’s ‘Monster Look’ in years to come. Heck, we even get our first look at the iconic Universal plane-flying-around-globe intro screen that will the studio’s trademark for decades.
But my real gripes here are with the story. Was it the screenplay? Or was all this just courtesy of the original social justice warrior himself, Victor Hugo? (What, didn’t you think the ending of Hunchback was actually the French Revolution trans-placed 300 years earlier?) Yes, I know he was trying to champion the plight of the poorer classes and outcasts of society. But I have a few questions. Namely, what did Barko... Baril... Barkimus... the Evil Jester hope to gain out of seeing Gwynplaine receive his rightful inheritance as a Lord? What was the purpose of Gwynplaine’s companions being exiled? Why did Gwynplaine become a fugitive for refusing his seat in the Lords? Why was the Torches-and-Pitchforks Club here working on the side of the aristocracy? And... I’ll just stop here.

Watching this film was a trial. At 1 hour, 51 minutes, it was too long. It felt slow and padded and was a chore to sit through. Meh.
Conrad Veidt as The Man Who Laughs (Gwynplaine): The procedure for Veidt’s look in this film might have drawn the attention of the Geneva Convention today. Basically, newly-minted Universal makeup boss Jack Pierce (a former dentist!) fitted Veidt with dentures containing hooks that pulled his face back and into the correct position. I can only imagine that Veidt could only act for short periods before the pain became unbearable.

Again, this character is similar to Quasimodo. But something is missing. Whereas Quasimodo is seen in several states- a lackey, a torture victim, praying, heroic, tragic, victorious (in his own way)- we only see Gwynplaine whine about his condition. Seriously, he does it in his first scene and in every scene thereafter. He often says- through the title cards- how he longs for people to see past his face and glimpse who he really is. (I guess that makes it the first movie to actually spell out its message for the audience.) This still might work if only he didn’t do it every single scene. Show. Don’t Tell.
Don’t get me wrong. Veidt tries really hard, showing tears, agony, and even joy with his eyes. But unlike Chaney in Hunchback, it’s really not enough to overcome the makeup the movie is hedging its bets on. (FULL MOVIE)

Wait a Minute: There’s something else I should mention about The Man Who Laughs. It seems that (roughly) when this film came out, a young lad- we’ll call him Robert K- was in an audience watching the show. Years later, Robert K had become an artist working on stuff in the cartoon section of the Sunday paper. He and his coworker- we’ll call him William F- needed to come up with a new no-good-nick for their hero to face. Suddenly, Robert K remembered watching Gwynplaine in the theater back when he was a kid. The two conceived of the idea of a creepy clown and the rest, as they say, is history.

Hm, let’s see... pale complexion; expressive eyes; clown theme; hideous, permanent grin. Now, who could that be? Could it be…?

Note: Yes, nerds. I am well aware of Jerry Robinson’s claim that he invented/co-invented the Ace of Knaves. That’s a different subject for a different article. For now, we’re sticking with Bob Kane’s official version of events AND THAT’S FINAL!
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